The defeat of the town budget last spring weighed heavily on the selectboard at its Monday night meeting. Several times during the meeting members discussed plans to revamp the budget-writing process in order to avoid another defeat this coming fiscal year. They discussed possible changes to the town charter that would outline a clear process to revote a budget should a future budget be defeated.
The central question the board will consider in the coming months is how to build a budget that voters will approve. Ideas were floated about forming committees that will survey voters in order to get a better insight into the the level of services voters expect and are willing to pay for. Board member Dick Grass, however, was wary of establishing additional committees and wondered if last spring's budget defeat, the first he could recall—and perhaps the first in town history— was a one-time event and there was no reason to change how the budget was drafted.
Not everyone agrees with Grassi. Other board members are a exploring a system town manger Hunter Riesenberg calls "performance based budgeting." In that system the board writes a strategic plan and establishes goals. All money that is budgeted has to be justified as to how it advances those goals. Typically in such a system a board will ask each department head to answer the same series of questions about how their department's finances advance the town's goals.
The change to a performance based budget takes time. It is too late to make the change for the next fiscal year, but if the board decides to move in that direction— and it shows signs of doing so—the change could happen as early as the following budget cycle.
In the meantime the board is already showing signs of movement towards a performance based budget. Board member Simon Dennis talked about a town survey and the board hosting so-called "vision sessions" where the board listens as residents speak about their budget priorities and goals. Internally the board is collecting spending data from towns comparable to Hartford and speaking with other town boards about the kind of questions they expect their department heads to answer as the budget is drafted.
Expect to hear calls from the board in coming months for greater voter participation in the budget-writing process.